Enten Eller doesn't look like a criminal. He's tall and gawky with a quick, shy smile; wire-rimmed glasses too small for his face; hair cropped so short it never needs a comb; a denim pencil holder slung from his belt. He's a physics major at Bridgewater College, a man at home with computers, calculus and quantum mechanics.
Eller is also at home quoting the Bible. And it is his beliefs that may turn him into a criminal. Eller will be indicted today in Roanoke, Va., the second young man in the nation to be charged in the 1980s with failing to register for the draft.
"I have not registered simply because the U.S. government has asked me to do something God would not have me do," Eller says, sitting on the floor in the basement of a friend's house in this Shenandoah Valley town. "I am a nonregistrant in order to be faithful to God, my conscience, and my church. Christ's way, the way of love, the way of concern for all peoples, the way of nonviolent peace, cannot be reconciled to involvement with the military."
The Selective Service System estimates that 570,000 draft-age men have not registered as required by law. Eller is one of 160 of those men whose names have been forwarded to the Justice Department for prosecution. Like Eller, most of those 160 are self-reporters, people who have refused to register and have written the Selective Service to let them know why. If convicted for failing to register, Eller will face up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Eller, 20, is a member of the Church of the Brethren, a small Protestant denomination which along with the Quakers and the Mennonites is one of the three historic peace churches. Church members have never had any trouble obtaining conscientious See ELLER, C3, Col. 1 ELLER, From C1 objector status, but for Eller, the probability of CO status is not enough. He cannot reconcile himself to cooperating with the Selective Service. "Registration involves me directly with the military and the military system. And as far as being a faithful Christian goes, I cannot see that military service is consistent with being faithful."
He stops and smiles when asked whether he knows how phrases like that make him sound. For Eller is not a religious fanatic, not a fundamentalist, not a literalist, not born again. He simply believes. "I don't want to fall into that religious language too much, because I'm not entirely comfortable with it," he admits. "Some of it is overused, it carries too many connotations."
Eller speaks about his unusual convictions matter-of-factly and is equally comfortable discussing theology in the basement or over dinner at Pizza Hut. "The reason that I made this decision and maintain it is simply that I'm trying to be faithful to God."
Eller is not bitter about having the hard choices thrust upon him. He is calmly good-natured. He scoots around on his motorcycle, briefcase strapped to the back. The efforts of the press to get in touch with him amuse him. He has set up a screening number in Harrisonburg to which all phone inquiries are directed. Calls are noted on forms Eller designed and ran off with the help of the Bridgewater computer.
And Eller keeps track of his life, of the calls he's made and received, of the people he wants to get in touch with and their phone numbers, in a little log made of two pieces of cardboard, computer paper and two wire rings. His briefcase holds copies of all his correspondence with the Selective Service and the U.S. attorneys, his log and a Bible. Eller talks with his parents in California a couple of times a week, and depending on when his trial is scheduled, they may come to Virginia to be with him.
There are faint echoes of the late 1960s, when draft card-burning, fist-waving, epithet- and bottle-hurling young men routinely declared that they would sooner go to jail than go to war. Although there is no draft today, the protests--and the government's efforts to prosecute resisters--harken back to events of the Johnson and Nixon years.
But Enten Eller is different. The thoughtful, articulate, straight-A college senior from La Verne, Calif., does not wish to defy his government. "I'm still not comfortable breaking the law," says Eller. "It's something that I do with a great deal of sadness. And there is no question about it to me, I am breaking the law.
"As a Christian, we're only given permission to disobey the civil law when it conflicts directly with that higher law. Part of the problem is trying to figure out whether this is where a conflict actually exists."
Eller saw the conflict coming two years ago when the Carter administration announced reinstitution of registration. Eller was in Australia on tour with a nondenominational, Christian singing group. He decided he couldn't register on the same day that he learned he would have to.
Another thing that sets Eller apart from resisters of the Vietnam era is that Eller is not trying to make a statement about registration or war, only about his beliefs. "My motivations are purely religious," explains Eller. "I'm not doing this to take a stand. But whether I like it or not, it's definitely a statement against registration.
"Still, that may be a statement that needs to be made. But that's for God to decide. The results are undoubtedly part of God's plan--I'm leaving the ends up to God." Moreover, Eller is at pains to emphasize, "I'm not judging registrants. Many registrants I know are just as committed Christians, just as committed peace people as I am. God calls us to different places."
Despite its historic opposition to war, not everyone in the Church of the Brethren agrees with Eller that in order to remain faithful, one has to refuse to register. Among those who disagree are Eller's parents, Vernard and Phyllis Eller, who were interviewed by telephone from their La Verne, Calif., home. Vernard Eller is an ordained minister of the church, a professor of religion at the University of La Verne. "Personally, I would have no difficulty in registering," says Dr. Eller, himself a CO during World War II. "But our whole background says that each person is to follow their own conscience as to what constitutes participation and cooperation with the war effort and what does not. The point at which Enten and I would differ is that I personally could register, I would not be happy about it, but I could. I do have great respect for his courage in following his own conviction. We fully support Enten, even though it's not what we would do."
When Eller decided not to register, he wrote his congressman and the Selective Service letters explaining his religious objections. That was back in July 1980. Since then, he has kept Selective Service officials abreast of his whereabouts. "That's part of my openness and cooperation with the system. As a Christian, when I make an action that is disobedient of the state laws, I feel constrained to take the consequences of that."
Eller has met with the U.S. attorney for western Virginia, the man responsible for prosecuting him since he is spending the summer in Harrisonburg. Says Eller of his prosecutors: "I'm trying to respect what they're doing. I don't want to cause them problems. They seem to be helpful people; I mean, seriously, I'm not being facetious."
Eller had planned to spend this summer as a counselor at two camps run by the church and attend the church's annual conference in Wichita. But when the U.S. attorney's office let him know June 16 that he would probably be indicted this summer, he abandoned most of those plans and began to devote himself to dealing with the indictment and pending trial.
He is living in the homes of friends in this little town eight miles north of Bridgewater College. To the east loom the Blue Ridge Mountains, to the west the West Virginia mountains. In Harrisonburg, Eller spends his time in the tiny enclave of families affiliated with Eastern Mennonite College. The homes in which he works are filled with books; the occupants read the Nation magazine as well as the Bible.
Last Thursday, Eller telephoned the assistant U.S. attorney in Roanoke who will prosecute him to confirm the dates of his indictment today and arraignment (probably Thursday, in Roanoke). Eller could just as well have been arranging a date with his girlfriend. "Good morning," he said when the U.S. attorney came on the phone. Upon hearing the dates, he told his prosecuter, "That sounds fine to me. I really feel like I'm jumping in with both feet now, but I guess that's going to be the feeling." Then he smiled. The attorney told him "see you next week," and Eller said, "Thank you very much."
There are funds available to Eller from the church if he wants to retain a lawyer and fight. But he probably won't. "The reason I would have a lawyer," says Eller, "would be to fight a legal case, to get myself acquitted. But my main reason for being there is not to be acquitted. The main reason is to be faithful. I'm not interested in fighting a big legal battle, that's not where I'm coming from. That clouds the real issue for me here. The real issue is that I'm doing this to be faithful, period."
Most of the people working with Eller think he will be convicted. Chuck Boyer of the church office in Elgin, Ill., does. So does Eller's physics professor and adviser at Bridgewater, Dean Neher. "I think he'll be convicted. There is no question that he broke a law of the land. What the results of that will be . . . " Neher's voice trails off. "I try to be optimistic."
Barry Lynn, head of Draft Action, an antidraft organization and support group for nonregistrants, is appalled: "A system that puts a man like Enten Eller into the position of either violating his deepest conviction that he has about God's role for him or facing up to five years in prison is a system that should not exist in this society . . . Eller has done nothing but follow the way he sees God's will for his life, and in the United States of America, following the will of God should not lead you to the threat of imprisonment in a federal penitentiary."
Eller is convinced the government will not only convict him but also put him in jail. "Trying to look at things from their position," reasons Eller, "if I get off with a light sentence, it's almost as if I was acquitted. And that's not going to be very much of a deterrent, which is the entire reason they are doing this--to try to convince other people to register."
Prison, admits Eller, is not something he would enjoy. And the church, according to church spokesman Boyer, "is prepared to approach the court and ask whether the court will assign him to do some humanitarian work under the church's auspices." The church runs several programs in Northern Ireland and the Middle East to which Eller could be assigned, and such volunteer service was permitted in lieu of imprisonment during the Vietnam war.
Eller will come to Washington for a press conference tomorrow arranged by the National Interreligious Service Board for Conscientious Objectors (NISBCO). Because of the amount of time spent dealing with lawyers, friends and the press, Eller hasn't had time to do the things he likes: read, play Star Trek on the Bridgewater computer, go to the movies. "But," he points out, "this is my life--my life is to follow God, so wherever he takes me, that's what I've got to work with.
"In a sense," Eller says, "things cannot go wrong. There is no way I'm going to lose. No one can affect my being faithful but me. If I can keep my head together, keep with God, then I am going to come out on top."